Thursday, July 20, 2017

Recipe: Pulled Pork

Another recipe requested by a friend. Enjoy, Lenny.

Pulled pork is probably the easiest barbecue to make, especially for beginners. It is very forgiving of technique and can even be made in a crock pot, if you are desperate, though purists probably wouldn't consider that barbecue. (I usually resort to this in late January/early February, when the world outside is starting to dream of spring but it isn't quite warm enough to really run the smoker yet.) I strongly encourage you to smoke this, if at all possible, or even cook it on a regular grill, using two-zone heating. (That's a whole other post, for another day. If you really want to know, Google is your friend.) You can even roast it in the oven at a low temp, but if the crock pot is your only option, go for it. I've included crock instructions where they might vary from the smoker method, but most of it will be the same except for the actual cooking part. As for the oven, it's pretty much the same as the smoker only you are doing it inside.

First, you will need a pork butt, or pork shoulder as it is sometimes called. If you are cooking in a crock pot, I suggest a partial butt if you can find one. Even my largest crock would have trouble accommodating a full butt. Um, that just sounds wrong, but you get what I mean. Anyway ... if you can't find a partial butt, no worries. You can cut a full one into smaller pieces. I usually do that anyway, even when using the smoker, as it allows it to cook faster and gives me more bark (more on that later.)

This is a pork butt. Or pork shoulder. Call it what you like, it is delicious when cooked low and slow until it becomes fall-apart tender. My local butcher trimmed this up pretty well, so it is ready to go, but if your butt has excess fat on it (ahem) then you might want to get rid of some of it. CROCK TIP: This is especially important when cooking in a crock pot, as every bit of that fat stays in the pot. Trim it down to a 1/4-inch (about 6 mm) thick or less.

If you are working with a full butt, you may want to cut it in half. I usually do. It cooks faster and gives me more bark, that tasty, crunchy crust that forms around the meat when you smoke it. A half butt takes 10-12 hours to smoke, whereas a full butt will need 16 hours or more. I don't like to get up before dawn to start making dinner, so I cut it in half. CROCK TIP: Bark, alas, is not going to form in the crock pot, so that is not a factor for you, but size might be. You may need to cut your butt just to get it to fit inside the pot.

To cut a full butt, look for the bone, as knives and bones don't get along very well. Cut the butt in half just to the side of said bone. You should get two almost equal pieces which will cook at close to the same rate. CROCK TIP: You can freeze half your butt for another day or use the other half to make sausage. Your call.

After splitting your butt, you need to coat it with mustard. (Stop laughing, I'm being serious here!) The mustard helps the rub adhere to the meat and also helps develop that amazing crust. Traditionally, plain yellow mustard is used. I prefer Dijon mustard with a little of my homemade chili sauce mixed in, but any mustard will work. If you are not a fan of mustard, don't worry. The mustard flavor pretty much disappears during the cooking process. Even so, if you honestly cannot handle putting mustard on your meat, then you can substitute olive oil. I prefer the mustard as I find it easier to work with and think it makes a better crust; however, there are many cooks out there who would disagree with me.

Just use your hands and slather a thin coat all over the meat. Don't be afraid to get messy. If you really must, you can use a silicone brush to apply it, but it will take longer and your coverage won't be as even. CROCK TIP: Since you cannot form bark in a crock pot because it holds all the moisture inside the pot, you may skip the mustard if you like. It won't hurt to add it, but it won't hurt to leave it out either. Just skip ahead and sprinkle the rub directly on the meat, if you prefer.

Next comes the rub, the true secret to great pulled pork. Most pit masters have their own secret blend and I'm no exception. I won't share my specific recipe, but I'll give you a basic one to get started. Just mix all the ingredients together and sprinkle liberally on your butt. (Seriously, stop laughing.)

  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) coarse sugar. I use turbinado sugar. Brown sugar also works. Granulated only if that is all you can get.
  • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) coarse salt. I prefer kosher, but coarse sea salt also works. Table salt in a pinch. (haha -- pun!) IMPORTANT: If your butt has been injected with saline solution, omit any additional salt!
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) paprika. I prefer smoked, sweet paprika for this recipe, but any will work.
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) dried sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) ground cumin
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon (2-5 ml) pepper flakes. The more you use, the spicier it gets.
Don't be afraid to experiment with different spices in your rub. That's how you get your super-secret, signature recipe. Just remember to start with a sugar/salt base with a ratio of about 3 parts sugar to 1 part salt. Again, omit the salt if your meat has been injected with a saline solution.


Preheat your smoker to 225°F (107°C). This is your target temp, where you want to keep your smoker at, but as I said earlier, butts are very forgiving. If your setup strays a bit from this, don't fret. As long as you keep it between 200°-300°F (95°-150°C), you should be fine. Since there are a ton of different smokers and grills out there, I'm not even going to attempt to instruct you on temperature regulation here. Just follow the instructions that came with your smoker or grill and you should be good. NOTE: I use a pellet smoker myself. I find it easy to use and love how it regulates the temp for me. I've used charcoal, wood and propane smokers in the past as well, but greatly prefer my pellet smoker. I just fill the hopper, set the temp, toss in the meat when it's ready and forget about it until dinner. Can't get much easier than that.

As I mentioned earlier, a full butt can take 16 hours or longer to cook. Half butts like these generally take 10 hours, maybe 12, depending on the size. Use a good meat thermometer and start checking full butts at about the 12 hour mark, half butts at about 8 hours. Don't check too often though, as all your heat escapes every time you open the smoker. (NOTE: I recommend inserting a digital cooking thermometer into the butt when you place it in the smoker. This will allow you to monitor the internal temp without having to open up the smoker.) When the internal temp hits 195°F (90°C) stick it with a barbecue fork and twist gently. If the fork turns easily, it is ready. If not, keep cooking until the internal temp hits 203°F (95°C). Cooking beyond this temp will just dry out the meat, so it's time to take it out of the smoker. If the fork still won't twist at this point, you may just have a tough butt (Stop it!) and may have to slice it instead of pulling it. No worries, it will still taste good. 

Smoked pork butt, ready for pulling.

IMPORTANT: Do NOT put sauce on your butt while it is smoking! I mean it. You have to wait until after it is pulled. Sauce will ruin all that lovely bark.


Toss the rubbed butt into the pot and cover it. Don't add any liquid, the meat will produce plenty on it's own. Let it cook on low for at least 8 hours. Depending on your crock and your butt, it may take even longer. After the 8 hour mark, check for tenderness by inserting a long fork and twisting it. When the fork turns easily, the meat is done and ready to pull.

As you can see, a half butt fits nicely in a large crock. I could probably cram a full butt in there, but it would be a tight fit.
It is very difficult to overcook pulled pork in the crock, so allow extra time if in doubt. If it tests ready early, you can just set the crock to "keep warm" until you are ready to pull and serve. I would definitely wait until almost serving time to pull it though. Once pulled, the meat will start to dry out, even in a crock pot.


You need to do this while the meat is still warm. To pull the meat, you can use two large forks or get special tools. A lot of pit masters swear by bear claws, but I find them too awkward and clumsy. I prefer the thinner tools pictured here. I use them to pull the meat into large chunks, then use regular dinner forks to pulls those into smaller bits. Unfortunately, I cannot recall where I found these nor could I locate anything similar on Amazon, so you're on your own there.

Whatever tool you choose, just rip the meat apart until you have bite-sized chunks. The trick is to tear, not slice (unless you have a tough butt, then you might have to improvise). Remove any large chunks of fat you find, but make sure you aren't tossing out delicious bark with them. If you smoked your butt, mix the bark pieces in so that they are evenly distributed. No, you can't just eat them all. That would be delicious. I mean wrong. That would be so wrong. If you cooked it in a crock pot, reserve the liquid and add it back into the pulled meat to keep it moist (or just toss the pulled meat back into the crock with the liquid).

Pulled pork is best served fresh, but the leftovers are pretty awesome, too. It's also extremely versatile. You can serve it on bread or buns. Wrap it up in tortillas. I love it stuffed into whole-grain pocket bread. You can even serve it all by itself. It's that good.

Just about any decent barbecue sauce pairs well with pulled pork. Whether tomato, mustard or vinegar-based, they all taste delicious. My favorite is my own apricot-mustard sauce. That's a recipe for another day though. Whichever you use, drizzle it moderately, don't drown the meat. You want that scrumptious pork and bark flavor to shine through. Or just eat it naked. (Good grief. I give up.)


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